According to Steve McCracken, marketing guru to the funeral sector, funeral directors are as “homogenous as domestic heating oil”, that is to say, people see them as being pretty much the same. And so most funeral directors work within a close geographical radius around their offices.
So we are interested when we, in our role as funeral directors, received these 3 pieces of feedback, not only because of what was said, but also because of who said them:
“I have attended over 4000 funerals and that was the most beautiful one I have ever seen.” Chapel attendant at the crematorium.
“That was, quite simply, the best funeral I have ever been to, and I have been to a lot in my 20 years working for a funeral director.”
“That was the best organised funeral I have ever attended.” A vicar of 25 years standing.
It makes you think, what on earth can we be doing to illicit such unsolicited enthusiasm from people who have been to so many funerals, and not only that but have been involved in thousands of funerals between them?
In addition to these, it is rare that after a funeral someone doesn’t come up to us and say “That was the best funeral I have ever been to. It was just right. I didn’t know a funeral could be like that”
We are a family owned and run independent funeral directing company working with families in Devon, trading as Heart & Soul Funerals. And we are also national trainers of funeral directors, would be funeral directors, and funeral celebrants across the UK, trading as Green Fuse Funeral Training. Jane Morrell set up the company over 20 years ago and I, Simon Smith, joined her in 2005.
I used to work as a management consultant and I always loved the story of SouthWest Airlines, an American domestic low cost airline. They flew their planes for more hours a day than any other operator because they could turn around a plane from landing to taking off in 15 minutes, compared with an industry average of over 40 minutes. When asked how they did this, their answer was, “because we didn’t know we couldn’t!”
We have always felt a bit like that in funerals. We were self-taught, worked as both funeral directors and celebrants, found our own ways around problems, defined for ourselves what we thought the experience of bereaved families could be based on or own experiences of the deaths of family members. We based our working practices on these, not on conventional wisdom. In 2006 we published a guide book for bereaved families, We Need To Talk About The Funeral. In 2008 I decided to embark on the Bath University Degree In Funeral Services, a course designed to broaden thinking and horizons rather than prescriptively tell us how to do things, understand the social context of death, explore funeral directing practices across the world, learn about the rituals around death, religious practices, bereavement theories. And, most important of all, spend much time talking to a dozen other funeral directors from across the UK, some independents, some working for big companies, challenging their views and learning from them. It we a very rich experience. In 2012 Jane and I were jointly awarded Funeral Directors Of The Year by The Good Funeral Guide.
Our experience and studies tell us that funerals have changed and they have not changed. Yes, now 50% or more are taken by celebrants rather than religious ministers, there’s a big range of coffins, but still a vast majority of funerals are formulaic, take place in the crematorium or church, involve the usual range of cars, funeral staff in black uniforms, tops hats and tail coats etc. The funeral director is the director, directing the family towards something that fits conveniently into their business model, directing from a fairly patriarchal standpoint of being the expert, the one in charge.
We think the biggest difference comes in the attitude of the funeral professionals, arrangers, conductors and celebrants, towards the families they work for and the business practices that lie behind these. With time and experience we can all acquire the skills needed to arrange a funeral, but the important thing is for us see ourselves as facilitators to the family, accompanying and supporting, following them as much as leading, listening carefully to pick up the hints and nuances that will make the funeral special for that one person. We start each funeral with a clean sheet of paper, and go wherever that takes you to create the right funeral for a particular person, to different venues, changed formats which stretch practices and models, which break the mould.
We call this the ‘Funeral rEvolution’. Families are increasingly demanding these changes because people born after 1940, whose values and attitudes were forged in the hothouse of the 1960s, are fundamentally different to those born before. We are funeral directors and celebrants for an unusually high proportion of people who die before they are 75. We have distilled our experience and knowledge into courses for funeral directors and the Diploma In Funeral Celebrancy training, both of which we have been running since 2008 so we can practice it ourselves but also teach others to do the job in a modern, post-modern way.